California high court to decide if media can attend court proceedings

Friday, May 15, 1998

Actor Clint Eas...
Actor Clint Eastwood talks to the media Tuesday, September 17, 1996, after testifying in a lawsuit brought against him by ex-lover Sondra Locke at the Superior Court in Burbank, Calif. Locke is suing Eastwood for fraud and contractual interference, claiming that he arranged a directing deal for her at Warner Bros. to trick her into settling a 1989 palimony lawsuit and to damage her career.

The California Supreme Court will settle a dispute over media and public access to civil trials stemming from the court battle between movie star Clint Eastwood and his former girlfriend, actress Sondra Locke.

KNBC-TV v. Superior Court involves the Los Angeles Times, California Community News and KNBC-TV, a Los Angeles-based NBC subsidiary.

Los Angeles County Counsel DeWitt W. Clinton has told the state high court that it should restore Superior Court Judge David M. Schacter's ruling allowing media coverage of a civil suit only when the jury is in the courtroom, because it is a “practical procedure” which balances media interests against litigants' right to a fair trial.

In addition, Clinton said, “neither the United States nor California constitutions specifically mentions an independent 'right of the public to attend court trials.'”

Under Schacter's proposal, the media would have been given closed session transcripts at the conclusion of the trial. In fact, the case was settled privately while the access issue was under dispute.

“While the Sixth Amendment confers a right to a public trial,” the Superior Court said, “such rights are conferred to the accused in criminal proceedings without reference to 'civil trials or a right of the public or media.'

“It has never been suggested … that citizens should be able to sit in and observe any public employee or official in their private offices or to attend any governmental meeting of any nature. …Rather, there is a simple recognition that the complete contemporaneous access to all government activity is infeasible and disruptive, and that public access must as a practical matter give way to many other important public interests including the efficient and practical operation of government.”

In September 1996, an appellate court panel reversed the Superior Court order, finding that the press and public have a First Amendment right to attend civil trials, and access may be curtailed only for the most compelling reasons.

The panel termed the trial court's decision to withhold transcripts of all closed hearings from the news media until after the trial a form of prior restraint. It concluded that the closure order in this case was inconsistent with the First Amendment.

Los Angeles-based attorney Douglas E. Mirell said: “The Court of Appeals got it absolutely right. The opinion that came down was well-reasoned and, in my view, extremely persuasive. I find it baffling and troubling as to why the Supreme Court took the case in light of how well-drafted the appeal court decision was.”

First Amendment attorney John H. Weston said that the arguments involved in this case are straightforward.

“It seems to me that the media should win this,” Weston said. “There should be an extremely high threshold which must be overcome before a court should consider or grant some order restricting access and/or dissemination.”

The county's brief urges the California Supreme Court to “examine carefully the purposes to be served by such press access and whether those purposes can be appropriately met with practical, economical and easy-to-apply approaches to balancing the needs of the press against the fundamental right of the litigants to a fair trial.”

Locke had sued Eastwood for deceit, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and fiduciary-duty breach arising out of alleged promises to assist her in the development of certain motion picture projects.

“Who the hell really cares what went on between Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke? But what happens in the next case involving a government official or a criminal case where there are allegations of misconduct or improper activity?” Weston asked.

“The problem is always that when we, as a society, begin to erode our basic protections, it makes a lot closer the day when we can deny access and the right to disseminate to something that is really important,” Weston said. “The more we do it, the more we permit government to suppress anything, the easier it gets to suppress everything.”

University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky told The Orange County Register: “There just isn't any way to predict what this court is going to do.”

In fact, society as a whole “is struggling right now with the rights of the media and the First Amendment and competing interests such as the right to privacy,” Chemerinsky said.

Historically, the state's high court has not been considered friendly to the media and has tended to come down against granting additional rights for the press or public access, the Register reports.

In 1989 the court ruled that Gov. George Deukmejian's appointment calendar should not be made public. That landmark decision, the Register said, has led to rulings by lower courts further restricting access to government records. But only two of the seven justices now on the court were serving at the time.

No argument date in KNBC-TV v. Superior Court has been set.